When Daniel Pink’s now classic “Free Agent Nation” was published in 2001, it brought to public attention the world in which I had been living for much of my professional life. Just in my little neighborhood, at the intersection of HRM and IT, I knew well several dozen solos, like me, who were earning a good living as itinerant, billable hours contingent workers. We were HRM software implementation team members and project managers, HRM delivery system strategists and business analysts, and every flavor of HRM subject matter specialists.
These were and continue to be very well-educated folks (many Enteprise Irregulars also fit this profile) who, even when the economy has been just awful, have savings from the fat years upon which to rely in the lean ones. These are folks who work hard, play hard, travel heavily, sacrifice family life to their careers, build and sustain friendships within their professional “neighborhood,” refer business to each other but with care to match the work to the worker as objectively as possible, and within which community I’ve built some lifelong, very close friendships. So when I sat down (on an airplane as I recall) to read Daniel’s book, this was my image of free agency — nothing to do with sports teams or entertainment folks and everything to do with Jan Fretwell (still a very active HRMS implementation project manager/coach) and Bill Kutik (who needs no introduction as the impresario of our neighborhood).
Over the last decade since our move to Fort Myers, and even more so during this dreadful recession, I’ve come to appreciate the true extent to which we’re surrounded by a much larger array of service providers who are also self employed (i.e. free agents) but who lack the earning power and, therefore, the protections, the safety net, of my professional contractor/consultant colleagues. Hair dressers are mostly self-employed, renting their work stations from shop owners with that rental covering their share of all the fixed and variable expenses of keeping the hair salon operating. Many car salesmen are self-employed, keeping a portion of the sales commission on the cars they sell with the rest going to the showroom/dealership owner to cover the fixed and variable expenses of keeping those showrooms open. Almost all Realtors are self-employed, with those operating out of realty firms owned by others paying a hefty part of their earned commissions for the privilege and facilities of operating under a Realtor’s umbrella. Our practically on retainer carpenter, our window washer and power siding washers, our tree trimmer (they grow like mad in this climate) and boat cleaner, and the list goes on of terrific, self-employed people whose work enables us to live where we choose while I continue to prefer day job to all of the above. And when the economy tanked, and everyone who uses these services, including us, did more themselves or did without (you should see what a skipped window washing creates in the land of the mega-insects, but it’s certainly not top priority for those whose mortgages are under water), many to most of these very hard-working folks had absolutely no safety net, little to no savings to draw down while waiting out the great recession, no unemployment to tide them over, no health care coverage, no nothing. While public employees fretted over paying more of their generous health insurance premiums and co-pays, while laid-off salaried corporate workers struggled with COBRA, these free agents of modest earnings in the best of times lost their homes, moved in with family members, went without any health care, applied for food stamps, and showed up, for the first time ever, at our food pantries and Goodwill.
What brought home to me the impossibly dark underside of the free agent nation, of the stark difference in circumstance between my educated consulting colleagues and their much lower paid but very hard working free agent cousins, was the nail tech tales. As it happens, my nail tech is a college graduate who had worked her way through college as a nail tech and then found that she couldn’t find work in her chosen field (Fort Myers has a VERY meager corporate base) at anything close to what she made as a nail tech, let alone could she have the schedule she needed to raise her grandchild (that’s another story). She’s smart, reliable, honest, a delightful companion for that hour I spend with her, and someone whose work is to a very high standard. Frankly, I could ask for no better description of my own work by my clients. And everything was going pretty well for her and her husband (he’s in the hospitality industry as are so many in our resort area) until the economy tanked. Hospitality/vacations was clearly the first place that everyone cut, and there went his otherwise decently paying but modest job. Next up were cutbacks by so many of her regulars — stretching the time between manicures, even more so between pedicures, foregoing the little extras and reducing their tips — and that’s for the ones that didn’t leave the area to find jobs elsewhere or to double up with family. Mortgage under water, sole support now of husband and grandchild, this amazing woman still smiled at each client and listened to their tales of woe, hour after hour, always the professional nail tech whose trade involves playing father confessor and shrink to her clients.
The economy is recovering, very slowly, and many businesses will add to their employed workforces eventually. For those lucky enough to be employees, there will be some kind of employer-sponsored health care coverage, some other benefits, COBRA if laid off or even leaving voluntarily, workman’s comp if hurt on the job, fair labor standards laws governing overtime, unemployment if laid off in the future and all the other benefits of being a traditional employee. But in a nation of free agents — and you’ll know we’re there if you just look around — it’s well past time that we adjusted our labor laws, our tradition of employer-sponsored benefits, and all of our thinking about free agency being the the acme of capitalist independence (which it certainly has been for me) to consider the vast army of lower paid service workers upon whom we depend but for whom we as a country have provided absolutely nothing comparable to their employee cousins.
Please note that this is being published with the full permission of my wonderful nail tech who is profiled here, permission for which I am very grateful. I would also like to thank Daniel Pink, who doesn’t know me from Adam, for helping shape my understanding of the broader policy issues associated with the growing ranks of the self-employed. If we expect to have a vibrant, durably successful economy, we need to revise labor policies and, more importantly, attitudes shaped by and relevant to our agrarian ancestors and the industrial age that followed. In today’s Free Agent Nation, those antiquated policies and the assumptions upon which they are based are not merely outdated; they are stultifying and dangerous.